Monday, May 19, 2014

Kindergarteners Collaborating? Yes They Can, With SMART amp!

As an educator, I strive to create a classroom that is focused on student-centered learning.  I am teaching children, not subjects or skills.  One way to promote such an environment is to develop activities through which all children can participate and work towards a common goal.  Although the children create something at the end, the focus is the learning process as how to do it together as a team.  I am referring to the act of collaboration, which is the target goal of the new software SMART amp developed by SMART Technologies.  

Why is this important?

"Schools are not just focusing on the three Rs (Reading, 'Riting, and 'Rithmetic) anymore," says Greg Estell, president of education with SMART Technologies. "They're really focusing on the four Cs: collaboration, creativity, communication and critical thinking."

"Trends toward collaboration, student-centered learning that is highly measurable, blended learning, distance learning and flexible learning are reflected in the technologies that classrooms use. These overarching trends of personalized and inclusive education are starting to drive the education technology market," explained Audrey Arthur of School Construction News, May 2014.

"[In the past], there was a teacher standing in front of a room of students with a whole stage kind of approach. But now students are working in small groups, they're collaborating together in class, and we're looking at technology to support that," Estell said.

"Different platforms, devices and constantly evolving technologies can create difficulties in the classroom. While schools are implementing a wide variety of technologies, students are also trending toward bringing their own devices from home. With such a range of technologies, schools are also charged with finding a way to systematically control the variety of technologies and limit technical difficulties," said Arthur.

"We really have spent a lot of time on software over the past year because kids are brining disparate digital devices, or schools are purchasing disparate digital devices in the classrooms, and how do you support that?" Estell asked.

According to Arthur, to find a solution to these challenges, SMART launched SMART amp learning software in April. The software works with any web-enabled device with a modern browser and is cloud-based. The assessment and organizational tools also allow teachers allow teachers to manage the entire classroom.

"It's a software that allows teachers to assess students, it allows collaboration in the classroom and it works on any digital device," Estell said.

My Experience With Piloting SMART amp

I was recently given the opportunity to pilot SMART Technologies’ new software, SMART Amp.  SMART amp is cloud based software and runs through Google Apps for Education (GAFE).  So, if your school uses GAFE, all you need to do to prepare the software for activation is to make some changes to settings in your GAFE Admin Console.  If you do not have permission to do that, ask your IT Administrator to do so.  

At first, I was hesitant to use the software with such young students.  The classroom did not even have a SMARTBoard in the room and the teacher who is not so tech-savvy was completely unfamiliar with SMART Notebook.  I happen to love SMART Notebook software as I used it to redefine my instruction.  However, one of the great features of SMART amp is that no knowledge of SMART Notebook is necessary.  In addition, the software is very easy to use, which is how it should be, otherwise the pedagogy suffers.  I was fortunate to win a grant for a SMART Board recently.  When it comes to integrating technology in the classroom, it is best to have some kind of plan beforehand to optimize your chance of success.  My goal was to use technology to strengthen reading comprehension.  I therefore had the SMART Board installed in this classroom and prepared to pilot SMART amp.

Technical Specifications for SMART Amp

In order to use SMART amp, every teacher and student needs a GAFE account.  Ordinarily, I would not have set up accounts for kindergarten students, but I did so for this specific purpose.  Second, as SMART Amp is cloud based, the software updates automatically without the need to download and install updates.  Similar to Google Docs, your changes are also saved automatically. Third, a robust wifi network is critical as the students will always need to be connected online when using the software.  Fourth, if you are using iPads in your school, you are most likely using Apple Configurator to manage your iPads and apps.  In general, I have very tight restrictions set in place for internet usage.  I basically block every website unless I specifically list it in my exceptions list.  You should know that although one goes to to use the software, SMART amp actually uses many different websites to run.  I had to loosen up the restrictions and web content filter settings on Apple Configurator while I was managing the iPads. Knowing that another teacher or myself would be sitting with the students and monitoring them, I was not concerned about the students browsing the web. I hope to resolve this in the near future as I can only imagine that other schools will be facing the same problem using GAFE, iPads, and the Apple Configurator.

When I first started using SMART amp in the kindergarten classroom, we focused more on becoming familiar with using the tech tools. This was the first time that the kindergarten students were using iPads in their classroom. The fact that they were able to use the software so easily and seamlessly was a big plus as class time did not go to waste. I didn't have to train the teachers or students how to use the software; it was just so simple. I debated as to whether use Google Chromebooks or iPads with the students. The reason I chose to use iPads for SMART Amp is because since the students do not know how to type, they would have a much easier time navigating on the iPad screen. I was right. Being able to navigate the workspace in SMART Amp required them to use their "pincher fingers," practicing fine motor skills and visual coordination, which are important skills for their age.

With the technology component of SMART amp being so easy to master, we were able to focus on the pedagogy. I used SMART amp with the kindergarten students in small groups 1-2 times a week. Learning is a process, in fact there is a common saying that FAIL = first attempt in learning. We did have some hiccups in the way that I designed the workspace for the students. Since the students are younger, they did have some difficulty with navigating and working within their own area on the workspace. I therefore designed each child's own area to be larger and assisted them in navigating to that space before they started their work. Each session was a learning experience on which I reflected and made the necessary adjustments and improvements for the following session.

Cooperation vs. Collaboration

When we first started using SMART amp in the classroom, it was more of a cooperative activity rather than a collaborative activity. This means that the students were completing the same activity by themselves with the same goal in mind. If one student had not participated in the activity, one would not have noticed the difference. I am now in the process of designing collaborative activities, which is the purpose of the SMART amp software. This means that the entire group will share a common goal; yet each child will create something different towards that goal. If one child is absent, that part of the goal is not completed. This shows our students that they all matter as each child is unique and has something different and special to contribute to the goals of the team. As it is much easier for teachers to design cooperative activities, collaborative activities are not implemented in classrooms nearly as often as they should be. It takes more time, effort, and preparation to design collaborative activities. If an educator spends the time to design collaborative activities, then the students will benefit tremendously in partaking in these activities. Once we get into the habit of designing collaborative activities for our classes, then it will be much easier to do so in the long run.

If you are interested in learning more about SMART amp, please watch the video below. Also you are welcome to come visit me at SMART Technologies' booth at ISTE 2014 where I will be presenting on SMART amp as a Trade Show Teacher for SMART Technologies.